A thyme to grow a healthy business

The next time you walk into Pizza Rustica, take a good, deep breath.

That fresh basil you smell grows just up 36th Street.

Pizza Rustica is one of the first local customers of a student-run herb garden at University City High School, supported by the Center for Community Partnerships’ Urban Nutrition Initiative (UNI).

And if owner Rosemarie Certo’s comments on the quality of the herbs she buys is any guide, it won’t be the last.

“They’re just phenomenal,” she said of the herbs. “We used to buy herbs from a local produce merchant who supplied upscale restaurants, and the herbs just never ever smelled like the herbs we get from the community garden.

“I think they are going to grow more vegetables and lettuces, and I just can’t wait,” she said of the students who grow and deliver the herbs.

Indeed, the garden does have plans to expand, according to Danny Gerber, director of UNI. “Our greenhouse is expanding so that the students can grow herbs in winter and gain more customers,” he said. “Having the greenhouse will enable the project to take off in ways we never dreamed of.”

But wait a minute. The purpose of UNI is to improve the health of urban youth by giving them greater access to healthy food. What does selling fresh herbs to gourmet restaurants have to do with that?

Everything, said Gerber. The UNI project needs money to expand, and that money has to come from somewhere. And that’s where the herb garden comes in. “We think that developing high-end

value-added products is where our business will go,” Gerber said, adding, “Herbs are a good product to sell right now.”

This entrepreneurial attitude enables the project to fulfill its community service mission. Herb sales subsidize community farm stands, teach students business skills and ensure the project’s survival. “The school-based business has the goal of making the project sustainable and able to survive changes in teachers,” Gerber said.

The demand for more and better produce is out there. A two-year-old seasonal farmers’ market in the 3700 block of Lancaster Avenue that features Lancaster County farmers and student-run fruit and produce stands has proved wildly popular. “The parents expressed the desire for the fruit stand to be open more hours,” Gerber said.

But the students can only devote so much time to the enterprise, which has led UNI to explore other ideas, such as a community food co-op in West Philadelphia. Gerber said that local faith-based organizations have expressed interest in the idea, and UNI staff are looking at storefront sites on Lancaster for the co-op.

UNI has also exported its program to South Africa as part of a broader partnership between Penn and the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. “Wits” is located in Hillbrow, a central Johannesburg neighborhood that was once an affluent white enclave and is now almost all black and much poorer. The university itself has also undergone rapid change—its student body, 90 percent white in 1990, is now nearly 60 percent black.

Center staff visited Wits to help it implement a service-learning curriculum that draws heavily on lessons learned at Penn. “Gardening, farming and health are all huge issues there as well,” said Joy Anderson, director of the Program for Systemic School Reform at CCP, who went to South Africa with Gerber and others.

Originally published on October 3, 2002